"Hang up your chairs to better sweep,
Clear the floor to dance,
Shake the rug into the fireplace."
— 'Fireplace', R.E.M.
Shaking a rug into a fireplace seems a pretty reasonable way to dispose of flammable debris on a rug. But the last portion of the song has it like this: “Hang up your chairs to better sweep / Clear the floor to dance / Throw the walls into the fireplace.”
Sometimes a world can be so crazy that it begins to make sense to sweep the metaphorical floor and walls into the fireplace—to begin fresh and new on the basis of the dangerous and disruptive facts of our situation. Such sweeping need not be, and ought not to be, violent. No one must be harmed. But the time does come for a radical transformation of institutions of myriad kinds.
This song came to mind this morning as I contemplated what I have begun, and what I intend to do here in The R-Word. It’s like this: over the next several months The R-Word intends to go deep into the exploration of a particular theme. That theme is the blending and mingling together of institutional failure and cultural reproduction in our social and political world.
The major institutions of “cultural reproduction” — schools, universities (education), the media / journalism, political parties, churches — rather than adjusting and adapting themselves in service to appropriate responsiveness to what Rupert Read has rightly called “the epochal question of our time: our wilful destruction of our collective life-support system“.
The major institutions of cultural reproduction remain entrenched within habits, premises, ideologies and patterns of inertia which belong not to our time in history, but to another time and place than our own. The political and social world thus looks fundamentally obsolete – to those of us who are paying any depth of attention to the most salient events of our day.
Cultural reproduction is “a concept first developed by French sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu, is the mechanisms by which existing cultural forms, values, practices, and shared understandings (i.e., norms) are transmitted from generation to generation, thereby sustaining the continuity of cultural experience across time. In other words, reproduction, as it is applied to culture, is the process by which aspects of culture are passed on from person to person or from society to society.” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_reproduction
However, when I speak of cultural reproduction, I mean something slightly different from the concept as it was used by Bourdieu. Bordieu’s use of the term emphasized the passing of cultural forms on through generations — a principally temporal dimension of “reproduction,” and a relatively long term one.
My use of cultural reproduction equally includes temporal and spatial dimensions, and is as much concerned with how culture moves through space in an hour or a day as in a set of generations. The theme, of course, is the movement — the transmission — of culture, however, whenever and wherever it moves.
I’m addressing this brief article mainly to my fellow writers. My hope is for us to generate some essays and articles on the themes of cultural reproduction and institutional failure—, on how and why we as a culture are failing to sweep away institutional obsolescence, insofar as institutional failure goes.
How do we reproduce cultural obsolescence? — in other words. And what might we do about it?
My hope is also to extend our localised (R-Word) conversation out in to the wider world where culture lives, moves and transforms.
Isn’t it time to sweep the floor?
Your article could be in the form of an exchange of letters or paragraphs — interview or conversation with a friend —, or any form which encourages the brooms to come out . Perhaps an essay? Even a poem or short story.
This post first appeared on James Martin’s substack blog, The R Word…